FRED SHELDON DONNELSON
1897 - 1974
Fred Donnelson was
a native of the state of Iowa, born in a small
town called Missouri Valley. Fred worked for
the railroad as repair crewman. One day a
rainstorm had swept violently over the corrugated
fields of the Nebraska countryside earlier
in the day. Young Mabel Peck dressed and went
out to look for any of the family farms
pigs that may have wandered off in the downpour.
She crossed the railroad track and noticed
that the rain had washed away one of the ties.
The evening train was due so she stood atop
the track and used her red cape to wave the
train down as it approached. The train stopped
in time to avert disaster.
The railroad people were grateful for Mabels
quick action. Some officials came from company
headquarters to meet her. They gave her a
cash award and a lifetime pass on the railroad.
A crew came to repair the track. One of the
repair crew was A. H. Donnelson, who met and
married Mabel. Seven years later, November
16, 1887, Fred Sheldon Donnelson was born
in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
Saved during a Billy Sunday
Mr. Donnelson continued working for the railroad,
even after an accident claimed one of his
legs. When he recovered from the accident,
the company moved the Donnelsons to Marshalltown,
Iowa. Fred was 12 years old when Billy Sunday
brought his tabernacle to Marshalltown. During
that meeting, Fred gave his heart to Jesus
Christ. All in the family were baptized as
they joined the First Baptist Church. Soon,
Fred was busy, serving the church as janitor,
choir member, Sunday school teacher, and eventually,
as Sunday school superintendent.
When war came, in 1917, Fred left for the
Army, but not before confessing to a young
lady friend that the Lord had called him to
be a preacher. He and the girl Effie exchanged
letters during his two-year absence and when
he returned from serving his country in the
artillery, he asked her to marry him. She
originally wanted to wait six years so the
couple could receive their formal education,
but after only two years, they married in
Marshalltown on September 25, 1920. There
was no time for a honeymoon, however. They
immediately rushed back to Chicago to teach
their Sunday school classes the next day.
Begins pastoral ministry
while in school
Fred had spent one year at the University
of Chicago when, disturbed by the liberal
theology in the divinity school, he transferred
to Wheaton. After a year there, he began studying
at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He graduated from the seminary in 1925 and
returned to Wheaton where he graduated in
During his school years, he pastored a small
church north of Chicago, but the distance
prevented his being on the field full time.
He was discouraged when the church wanted
to try another pastor, but the seminary president
arranged for Donnelson to become a candidate
for pastor of Messiah Baptist Church in Chicago.
Messiah called him to be their pastor and
he and Effie worked there for eight years.
It was a busy and active church. They did
house-to-house visitation and canvassing,
adopted Louis Entzmingers six-point
record system, held street meetings, and rented
trucks to transport youth to activities.
Donnelson was an ardent supporter of the Baptist
Bible Union and was asked to edit a paper
for the Union called The Trumpet. He led Messiah
to separate from its convention affiliation
and become an independent Baptist church.
And they supported missionaries. One of those
supported by Messiah was Mrs. W. S. Sweet,
known as Mother Sweet, a missionary
Called to China,
If it is His will
After their work at Messiah, the Donnelsons
were called to First Baptist Church in Plainfield,
Illinois. They loved the church and town,
but the financial upheavals of the Great Depression
had their counterparts in the spirits of Fred
and Effie Donnelson. Neither knew why, but
they were unsettled. Both were certain a change
was coming their way.
In the waning days of the summer of 1932,
Mrs. Sweet visited the Donnelsons in their
church at Plainfield. She was nearly 70 years
old. She and her husband had begun a mission
in Hangchow, China, 40 years before. Now,
Mr. Sweet was with the Lord. Though all her
friends expected that she would remain in
America, she believed she should return to
At the breakfast table in their home that
summer morning, she told the Donnelsons that
she felt the Lord was about to call an American
pastor and his family to work in China, as
there was a great need for a man to
supervise the work.
In the pulpit the following Sunday morning,
Pastor Fred Donnelson of First Baptist Church
in Plainfield, Illinois, found it difficult
to deliver his prepared sermon. He looked
up from his notes, laid them aside and said,
I believe that God is doing a work in
our midst and desires some of us to make a
new surrender to His will. He met Effie
at the altar where they surrendered themselves
for the mission field.
When the two newly-called missionaries asked
Mrs. Sweet if she thought God could use them
in China, she replied, If it is His
will. And with that cautionary note,
the aged missionary brought out steamship
schedules, maps, and a calendar. By the time
the visit was over, the Donnelsons had chosen
a departure date and a steamship.
Six months. Six months to sell the furniture
and belongings. Six months to visit with churches
and friends to raise support. Six months,
and they would meet Mrs. Sweet in Hangchow
and begin their missionary adventure and continue
the work of the late Mr. Sweet.
Mrs. Sweet, who had meanwhile returned to
China, wrote Fred, We are praying you
will bring a car with you, as it could be
greatly used here. Fred knew the well-used
family Model A would not make the trip, so
he joined in the same prayer. A few days later,
a man from Minnesota phoned, saying that the
Lord had told him he was to give his new Ford
to Fred Donnelson who was going to China.
It was the first of many miracles they experienced
on the missionary road.
Mission work mix of
evangelism and training
It was the winter of 1932 and 1933, the years
of the Great Depression. Money was hard to
come by. Missionaries were coming home, not
going out. So, when their ship, the Empress
of Canada, departed Vancouver, February 25,
1933, the Donnelsons took third class passage
to China, with not one supporting church in
Hawaii. Japan. And then Shanghai, China. Mrs.
Sweet met the new missionaries and guided
them through customs. Then a train took them
to Hangchow, where, finally, they were met
by members of Central Baptist Church. Fred
noticed about 15 young men in a corner. He
asked Mrs. Sweet who they were. She said,
They are yours! The young men
were preachers who needed training. But first,
Fred would have to learn the local dialect
so he could communicate.
He preached his first Chinese sermon six months
later. Soon, he was taking the preacher boys
into the surrounding villages to give out
tracts and hold meetings. They began several
new chapels almost at once and soon Donnelson
established a portable Bible school. He purchased
a tent for the village meetings. He would
take the tent to a village and leave it for
about a month at a time. In the mornings,
the young men would take Bible school courses.
In the afternoons, they would visit in homes,
inviting people to the evening services. Then
they would hold an evening evangelistic service.
In this way, he established 25 chapels in
his first term.
During Donnelsons three and four week
absences, Effie was working in the Central
Baptist Church. She taught music in the mission
school and even developed a small orchestra.
She helped in the services, which were held
every evening, and continued to study the
Years later, she would write of these first-year
There is no comparison between
living as we did in those early days, and
the modern guided and pampered tourist who
is lured by the commercial luxury and protection
of sightseeing. Slow travel, walking long
and tedious distances, obliged to live with
meager sustenance of strange foods, customs,
discomforts and follow with respect the many
foreign customs while subtly persuading a
suspicious and often hostile people to accept
a new way of life, posed many and varied problems
that were sometimes almost insurmountable.
We were obliged to tolerate and share many
adverse circumstances, attitudes, illnesses,
living quarters and conditions such as no
tourist can imagine.
Visitors view the passing scene with interest,
sympathy, horror, amusement in protective
comfort. The true missionary enters into the
daily lives of the people and shares their
every difficulty with sympathetic and optimistic
faith. If the foreign missionary cannot relate
his gospel to the most intimate exigency of
the potential convert, in masses or individuals,
he is lost.
Condescension and superiority have no appeal.
Only after you have won respect and trust
as sincere friend and confidante will they
reciprocate and even attempt to understand
your message of Christian salvation. You live
with them, and for their conversion to Christ
as your one personal goal. Without such commitment
and denial of self, there can be no victory.
In 1937, Japan and China were at war. Hangchow
was continually under Japanese air attack.
When the Japanese infantry landed troops nearby,
the Donnelsons fled to Shanghai. They reluctantly
left for a trip home and a furlough, but not
before becoming burdened for the city of Shanghai.
They vowed to return as soon as possible.
Home for awhile
but anxious to return
When the Donnelsons returned to the United
States, they found the independent Baptist
landscape had changed. The protest-based Baptist
Bible Union had given way to the missionary
vision-based World Fundamental Baptist Mis-sionary
Fellowship. Church-es and preachers were attracted
to a system of missionary support that showed
signs of organization yet lacking the features
of denominational control and bureaucratic
inefficiency. Mrs. Sweet had telegraphed her
enthusiastic support. Donnelson was able to
use the network created by the fellowship
to promote China missions. The pages of J.
Frank Norriss Fundamentalist constantly
encouraged readers to send support for the
new work to be built when the Donnelsons returned
They did return in the fall of 1938. In the
next three and a half years, they established
Shanghai Baptist Tabernacle and a Bible school
with dormitories for housing resident students.
Fred followed the village chapel routine he
had used in his first term. Mornings were
devoted to serious classes and afternoons
were spent visiting and meeting in homes.
There was an evangelistic meeting every evening.
And during all this time, Fred continued to
oversee the Hangchow and country village work
with the help of the Chinese workers.
The Shanghai work began to build a reputation.
Mrs. Donnelson writes that many local shopkeepers
were being saved and closing their doors on
Sunday, a phenomenon unheard of in Asia. Although
the church choir could not accept many invitations,
it was invited to appear and sing in several
places. The Tabernacle was filled with young
people from universities and colleges studying
to become doctors, teachers, and other professionals.
By this time, their son Paul was a senior
in high school. With war between the U.S.
and Japan beginning to seem inevitable (the
Japanese were still occupying Hangchow and
sections of Shanghai), the American consulate
advised all citizens to leave China. Pauls
school would not finish the year, so the missionaries
sent him home to live with his grandmother
and graduate in the U.S. Just a few months
later, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Prisoners of the Lord
On December 8, Fred, Effie, and and 15-year-old
Lois Donnelson stood in the cold for hours
in a registration line that stretched for
several blocks. They received special armbands
signifying their enemy status and were told
they were confined to their home. Some weeks
later, they closed their home and reported
to an internment camp. They, along with 1,100
others, were placed on the campus of a bombed
Through the efforts of the American diplomats,
the Japanese were persuaded to allow the camp
occupants to govern themselves to an extent.
There were some professional and skilled workers
among the internees, so they set out to make
the best of the situation and form a community.
Though they faced insects, cold, and long
political lectures, all on little food and
comfort, life was bearable. Guards continually
warned they had all escape routes blocked,
but Mrs. Donnelson writes, What they
did not know was that there was one road that
was impossible for them to close, and that
was the road Up to the very Throne
Health threats were the greatest worry. There
were doctors in the camp, but no medicines.
Food was so scarce and bad that Fred lost
45 pounds. Dysentery plagued the camp and
Effie herself fell ill. She was, in fact,
in the infirmary when word came that the prisoners
were to board a ship for repatriation. Taking
only the little the Japanese allowed, and
with Effie able to be moved only on a stretcher,
the missionary family boarded the transport
that would take them to the neutral Swedish
ship, the Gripsholm. So, after three and one
half years of productive ministry, followed
by 22 months as prisoners of war, the Donnelsons
took their second leave of Shanghai. Eighty-four
days later they entered New York Harbor and
Return to Shanghai cut short
The war ended with the Japanese surrender
to General MacArthur in 1945. Fred and Effie
had spent the last two years of the war visiting
churches and preparing for the day they could
return to China. They experienced a happy
reunion with the people of the Shanghai Tabernacle,
and the work commenced again. After a year,
they were joined by Lois and her new husband,
Bill Logan. With Logans help, they began
a radio broadcast ministry. The church grew
and young people were again flocking to the
Then the Communists began driving into south
China. Fred sent his daughter and son-in-law
back to the States, but he and Effie were
determined to stay. It was only after members
of the Shanghai Baptist Tabernacle implored
him to leave for their own safety that he
relented. In 1949, waiting until the last
possible moment to evacuate, the Donnelsons
left their missionary work in mainland China
for the final time. Now in his fifties, Fred
Donnelson appeared to have ended his missionary
His greatest work at midlife
J. Frank Norris, pastor of both First Baptist
Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, and Temple Baptist
Church in Detroit, Michigan (whose work was
superintended day to day by G. B. Vick), had
fully embraced the China mission of Fred and
Effie Donnelson. Temple Baptist and Vick had
been especially hospitable to the couple when
they had returned from their prison camp experience.
This relationship would have great significance
in the near future.
The Donnelsons made a home in Ottumwa, Iowa,
not knowing quite what to do except to visit
among the churches of the missionary fellowship,
telling their stories and presenting missionary
work. This plan was interrupted in May 1950
when a group of pastors in the World Fundamental
Baptist Missionary Fellowship rejected Norriss
leadership (or, one might just as well say
Norris rejected them) and formed the Baptist
Bible Fellowship. Enough had been done and
said since Donnelsons homecoming that
in the founding meeting of the new fellowship
he said he felt like he was putting on a new
suit, and he hoped the right arm of
the new suit would be a missionary arm.
Within a few weeks, former WFBMF missionaries
declared their intention to be BBF missionaries.
The mission office was a corner
of a desktop manned by the secretary of High
Street Baptist Church in Spring-field, Missouri.
Within a year, however, that changed when
Fred Donnelson was officially appointed mission
director. He had already been doing director
stuff, teaching mission courses at the
new Baptist Bible College and promoting missions
among the churches.
Bill and Lois prepared to go to Taiwan (then
known as Formosa), and the Donnelsons themselves
longed to be among Chinese people even if
they could not enter the mainland. Fellowship
leaders, though, persuaded them that their
work could be duplicated many times over if
they remained in the U.S. and established
the mission work of the BBF.
And those leaders were correct in their assessment.
For 18 years, Donnelson oversaw the missionary
program of the Baptist Bible Fellowship. He
traveled, taught, and encouraged preachers,
churches, and missionaries worldwide. During
those years the BBFI adult overseas missionary
force grew from fewer than 20 serving four
fields to 300 on 26 fields. Mission office
receipts grew from barely over $100,000 to
over $2.8 million annually.
He left his position as mission director in
1968, retiring to write a missions textbook.
He occasionally lectured on missions at Pacific
Coast Baptist Bible College and preached in
churches. In 1972, Jerry Falwell offered him
the chair of the mission department of the
newly-formed Lynchburg Baptist College in
Lynchburg, Virginia. His tenure there was
shortened, however, by illness. In early 1974,
a private pilot transported the very ill missionary
from Virginia to Springfield, Missouri. Upon
landing, Donnelson was taken directly to the
hospital. The next day, he fell asleep, never
to awaken on earth again. On February 9, 1974,
Fred Donnelson was taken to heaven.
They called him Mr. Missions
When a pastor would introduce Fred Donnelson
as a guest speaker to his congregation, he
would often call him Mr. Missions. Shortly
after his death, Effie wrote a short biography
of her husband, They Called Him Mr.
Missions. As this brief profile has
shown, this was no extravagant claim.
In 1968, Baptist Bible Tribune editor Noel
Smith wrote of the significance of Fred Donnelsons
influence in the early days of the Baptist
Bible Fellow-ship International:
In the first place, he has always insisted
that the Baptist Bible Fel-lowship International
should have its own missions work, that it
should create its own corporate individuality
and character and never be integrated into
any other missionary organization.
In the second place, he has insisted that
the Baptist Bible Fellowship missionaries
should be trained in the Fellowships
own college, so that they could get the feel
of the Fellowships atmosphere and way
of doing things, so they could have fellowship
with students who would become Fellowship
pastors, evangelists, and missionaries.
We take all this for granted today. But Dr.
Donnelsons intelligence and courage
at the time policies were being established,
deliberately or by practice, is chiefly the
reason why we are able to take it for granted.
The history of the Baptist Bible Fellowship
International will preserve F. S. Donnelsons
name as one of the Fellowships most
important founders, and will credit him with
being a chief contributor to basic policy
that has been decisive in the unity, expansion,
productiveness, and continuity of the organization.
Donnelsons old friend
G. B. Vick said on more than one occasion,
I do not believe there is any such thing
as an indispensable man, but, if there is
an indispensable man in the Baptist Bible
Fellowship, its Fred S. Donnelson.
No wonder they called him Mr. Missions.